Friday, April 25, 2014

Why we're on earth . . . ultimately

“Ultimately, you know why we’re here on earth . . . to get rich.” – Kevin O’Leary.

O’Leary’s a wealthy investor, one of the pair—with Amanda Lang—featured on the Lang and O’Leary Exchange on CBC. For half-an-hour, they alternately yell at each other, talk over one another and generally (it’s likely staged to be like this) disagree about emerging economic issues-of-the-day. O’Leary is full of the unfettered, unregulated marketplace theory, minimum taxation . . . and himself. Lang is the good cop arguing at every turn for some humanity to temper the bellicose pronouncements of O’Leary, the one who’s ultimately on earth to get rich.
                It’s too phony by half and one can’t be blamed for assuming that CBC has O’Leary on for the same reason they’ve long given Don Cherry airtime in the first intermission on Hockey Night in Canada; there’s an audience out there for loud-mouthed, right-wing cockiness!
                But wait! Maybe O’Leary's comment sticks in my craw like a sharp chicken bone because he’s inadvertently pointing out a bit of hypocrisy in the non-wealthy world of which I’m a card-carrying member. If someone had observed me day after day since I left grade school, I’m sure they would have arrived at the conclusion that my primary pursuit was to gather means, i.e. money and the things money can pay for. How I have longed to be wealthy, to have all my days secured by absolute, independent wealth. My pursuit of it was hindered only by a lack of the skills, the luck and the energy possessed by people like O’Leary.
                I have daydreamt of living in a mansion with servants while espousing egalitarian, left-wing platitudes. To put it bluntly, my ultimate drive in life has been to become rich, or at least comfortably well-off. One of my greatest personal fears (next to sickening and dying, that is) is that what wealth I have accumulated—modest as it is—may prove not to be enough to sustain me with dignity in my old age.
                Whatever O’Leary’s sins are, I ought to leave to him to discover. For most of the world, I think, the greatest folly is to be dishonest with oneself, about oneself. Seems to me that replacing the word “sin” with the word “hypocrisy” wherever it occurs in scripture might come closer to what’s meant by the original nature of human folly. It’s so universal. People trumpeting resurrection and eternal life as if they were irrefutable facts . . . and living their lives as if they were agnostic on the subject. People judging others for particular sins as if their own sins were nothing more than endearing foibles. In the words of Christian scriptures, people who strain gnats out of their drink, but swallow whole camels without blinking.
                This is the club of which I am a bona fide member.
                If O’Leary is wrong, then what are we ultimately on earth for? If not to get rich, then what? Or are we—like the dandelion that sprouts on our lawn without apparent purpose—just . . . here?
Maybe pondering purpose is wrong-headed altogether; maybe, like the dandelion in the lawn, the proper answer to “here’s why I’m on earth” is found in blooming as large and as yellow as possible before the obsessive suburban homeowner sprays you down.
Maybe T.S. Eliot said it best:

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

And sprayed down we will all be, O’Leary and me included.
Meanwhile, tomorrow Lotto 6/49 will draw for an estimated $18,000,000.00! Have you got your ticket yet?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Reflections

Spring has sprung . . . backwards

Tomato seedlings
Note:Words that have a different colour or are underlined are hyperlinks; they lead to a reference or to supporting information on the web. Just click on the hyperlink.

Good Friday. The name may seem puzzling; it’s a commemoration of an execution, after all. Holy Friday, Great Friday, Black Friday, are other names for the day, but Good is common in our day and likely comes from the archaic sense of the word when it still connoted Holiness. (The etymology of good bye is roughly: God be wi’ yeGod by ye / Good bye).
                Here at Academy Bed & Breakfast, we’re hosting guests visiting families in Rosthern, we’re blanketed under a cover of fresh snow (with more to come) and the temperatures are 10 – 15 degrees below normal. There may be goodness in this prolonging of winter; I fail to feel it at present.
                Good Friday worship services have taken place in the Christian Church worldwide. I attended the ecumenical one in Rosthern. It was done in the form of a typical funeral: a participant read the eulogy, Mary Magdalene presented a tribute to the deceased as did the Apostle Peter. Primarily, God Friday services remind Christians of the sacrifice that was made when Jesus gave up his life as an offering for our redemption. Not everyone will comprehend that, logically, (including me) but the transaction that is variously called “being born again,” “conversion,” “accepting Jesus Christ as your Personal Saviour and Lord,” relies on the adoption of a belief that Christ grants eternal life to all who put their faith in the validity of this Black Friday sacrifice.
                There are protesters that say, roughly, that a God that is placated by human sacrifice doesn’t correspond to a creator of a universe and living things that he loves; it’s too bloody and violent to be credited. We must be misunderstanding—they may say—what is meant when we describe the transaction of redemption in this way.
Some explain the crucifixion more politically: a leader of a subversive Jewish group was executed by Roman authority. Leaders of rebellions have always been targets of official wrath (See "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," by Reza Aslan). Still others think of it as a welcome Friday holiday, a good time to watch NHL playoffs and sitcoms on TV.
There’s plenty of ambivalence to go ‘round . . .
Easter Sunday
. . . as there is surrounding the entire Easter cycle in the church calendar.
“The modern English term Easter, cognate with modern German Ostern, developed from the Old English word Ēastre or Ēostre. This is generally held to have originally referred to the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ēostre, a form of the widely attested Indo-European dawn goddess.” (Click here for more.)
Orthodoxy has always insisted that contrary to our experience, a body that’s been dead for three days can recover physically, miraculously, and that that must be believed as fact, otherwise the gospel message is null and void. (I’ve been astounded at the lengths to which commentators on—and researchers of—the resurrection have been willing to go to prove or disprove the authenticity of the miraculous resurrection; see a typical website on the subject of the Shroud of Turin, for instance.) Liberal theology is more likely to accept a metaphoric resurrection, i.e. the ignition of a fire that spreads throughout the world and is evident today in the extraordinary impact Christ’s followers, equipped with his spirit and fervour, have had and are continuing to have.
By this reasoning, though, Genghis Khan, Winston Churchill and, yes, Elvis Presley are capable of “resurrection” and of lingering on as presences in the world, a thesis that’s not impossible to defend.
The metaphoric conception of the resurrection, of course, has to assume that early gospel writers stretched the truth, or else wrote in a code that they understood . . . but that we tend to confuse with historical accounting.
This kind of speculation, of course, plays havoc with those whose faith is founded on the hope of their own resurrection and that mystical transaction that makes eternal life possible, and makes belief the key. It also messes with our delight in Easter bunnies, Easter bonnets, Easter eggs and the euphoria surrounding the message and the music associated with both spring and hope arriving simultaneously (the former not to be the case this year, apparently).
No matter how one understands the Easter sequence, it seems to me the message in it must be remarkably similar in import. In a world of pain, suffering and hopelessness, there was one who saw in every human a child of God and found the strength to sacrifice himself to relieve the lostness he saw around him. To the hungry, he gave food; to the sick, healing; to still others, like Nicodemus, a vision for rebirth into a better reality; and to all, he offered hope.
No matter how the story of Easter is interpreted, unless it creates in us fervour for the core message it will remain meaningless and Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, and NHL playoffs will have to do, especially when spring seems a distant dream.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rest in Peace, Jim Flaherty

Jim Flaherty was a politician who stood out in what often appears to be a humourless, ideologically-obsessive pack on parliament hill. Even his opponents recognized this; news of his tragic, early death had them rushing to the mikes to pay tributes to a man whose policies they had been castigating for years: diverting budget money from crime prevention to retribution, omnibus budget bills that made meaningful debate on vital matters impossible, maximum efforts toward resource exploitation without credible attention to climate change, etc., etc.
Stephen Harper called him his partner, and whatever was announced as regards policy and subsequent legislation (Fair Elections Act, for instance) rose out of the collaboration of Harper, Flaherty and others in the cabinet and caucus, obviously.  
                But to harp on this when family and friends of a man tragically taken before his time are in mourning would be a callous act. Eulogizing people’s strengths and forgiving their weaknesses is what we do to honour the lives of the recently-departed, so much so that the adage—if your wish is that people should speak well of you, consider dying—has a ring of authenticity to it.
                Watching Jim Flaherty do the public part of his job—the interviews, the scrums, all the stuff we normally see of politicians—led me to believe that the accolades regarding his demonstration of extraordinary humanity might not be misplaced. He tended to speak forthrightly and civilly to reporters and to questions in the House of Commons. The need to accuse and belittle opponents just wasn’t that well developed in Flaherty; he didn’t come to his job with a mouthful of razorblades as so many of his colleagues and opponents seem to have done. He smiled a lot, like a man who is constantly on guard against taking himself and the trials of the day too seriously.
                The parallels to the death of Jack Layton are obvious; responses to their deaths were almost identical and may equally have demonstrated that what we look for in leadership is not hard-edged idealism or even extraordinary work and dedication, it’s the consistent practice of kindness and empathy, a humanity that nurtures people first, everything else second.
Many of the tributes sounded hollow, especially comments like “He was the best finance minister we ever had.” History will decide if his work in the cabinet was characterized by more missteps than feats of brilliance . . . or the other way ‘round. That’s how it will be for all of us when we've walked our last mile; fortunate for us if the choice of those left behind is to “forgive us our trespasses, [even as they will one day be forgiven].”
                Simply put, there’s a time to place reflections on what a person was above analysis of what that person did. Many acquaintances and friends were interviewed and for me, comments like, “He was a really nice guy,” seem to sum up what will be his lasting legacy for those who really, actually knew and valued him.
                As for the rest of us, who get to know only what the media choose to divulge, we will simply watch as our country pays its formal respects on Wednesday, and some of us will pontificate on its meaning as if we actually knew what that meaning was . . .
. . . over coffee, maybe.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Been to Mass lately?

My church tradition doesn’t include the Mass, so when Duff Warkentin, conductor of the Station Singers asked me to write a review of their performance of Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: a Bluegrass Mass, I began to Google for information.
For you Protestants out there who “go to church” and don’t “attend Mass,” here are a few things I learned:
·         The word “Mass” comes from the Latin missa, root of dismissal and generally has to do with sending of the people to be the servants of Christ,
·         It’s basically a structured liturgy of worship including penitence, a plea for mercy and forgiveness, acknowledgement of Christ’s sacrifice for our redemption, praise of the Triune God and a central act of worship, the taking of communion.
We Protestants were weaned off liturgical worship a long time ago, but lately I’ve noticed that worship leaders in my church organize the services in phases very nearly equivalent to the progression of the Mass: confession, praise, scripture, etc. Although different denominations have structured Mass differently, even given it different names like Holy and Divine Liturgy, the differences in the content of worship seem to include the same parts as the traditional Mass.
And along comes The World Beloved: a Bluegrass Mass and the two performances I attended, taking notes, photos, trying to come up with erudite descriptions of what I was hearing.
·         Note 1: It’s a concert I’m at, not a worship per se. Although I’m sitting in a church today and heard the same music in a theatre yesterday, the content is definitely church/Bible in origin. I paid admission, will write a review, people applaud boisterously. Hmmm.
·         Note 2: Although it’s a concert I’m at, my friend Ben singing the Credo, the Grinnin’ Pickers playing the Art Thou Weary  interlude move me almost to tears . . . what’s that about??
·         Note 3: Agnus Dei is sung so beautifully today: Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
·         Note 4: I don’t know enough about music to be doing this; luckily it’s for the Saskatchewan Valley News—and perhaps the Canadian Mennonite, not the New York Times . . .
Sometimes some of us declare that a particular music genre is the only good music that exists, but I’ve noticed that the range of our preferences broadens when what we’re listening to is live—as opposed to recorded—is experienced in the company of others and is sincerely presented by musicians who love what they do. So although I’m supposed to love best of all the orchestral and choral works of dead Germans—and I do—I am also a lover of blue grass, folk, jazz, rock, hymnody, and a whole bunch of others whose names I get confused (I found out recently that “indy” is “independent”).
The Grinnin’ Pickers (bass, banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals) did a set of bluegrass tunes before The World Beloved. They also threw in a few banjo jokes for free:
·         Seems the banjo player in their ad hoc band realized recently that she’d left her banjo in her unlocked car. Hurrying back, worried that it might be stolen, she arrived at the car and found three more banjos had been tossed into the back seat.
·         What’s the definition of perfect pitch? Hitting a garbage can with a banjo at ten paces without touching the sides.
I feel a need to include lines from the Gloria:
Glory be to God below,
For feather, fur, for scale and fin,
For vine uptwisting, blossom’s fire,
For muscle, sinew, nerve and skin
And every feature set agow.
Oh, Glory be to God below.